The eve of a new television season is a time of giddy anticipation — how will the crop of new shows turn out? What will happen (and who will have awful new hairstyles) on my old favorites? And what twists and turns await a breathless public on "According to Jim"?
Except that the breathless public could not care less about what happens on "According to Jim" if we were all six feet under on our back in a box. Jim himself doesn't care that much, probably, when it comes right down to it.
The eve of a new television season also brings with it a sense of awe — namely, at the fact that certain shows have lived to see another year, that what to our wondering eyes should appear on the fall programming schedule but "JAG." Again. What? Does anyone still watch that show? Did anyone ever watch that show in the first place? Didn't they drown a main character at the end of last year? Shouldn't that just about do it?
Why? Why does a mediocre (or outright bad) show sometimes limp along for years, when a quality program fights for its life ("Arrested Development"), or has to adjust to a new time slot every couple of weeks ("Scrubs," "Sports Night") — or gets sacked altogether?
Outstaying your welcome
Often, it's because the mediocre show was once a great show. "ER" isn't the worst show on TV, but it's a shadow of its former self. Practically the entire original cast is gone, except for Noah Wyle, who is trying to escape by cutting down his episode appearances, and Sherry Stringfield (and even she took a lengthy hiatus). The new cast members brought in each year to try to inject some life into the proceedings can't do much with the material, which has grown steadily more cynical and lifeless as the writers run out of original medical plots and intra-character romantic combinations. Dropping an entire helicopter on audience favorite Robert Romano, in a last-ditch effort to re-engage the viewers, explored new depths of creative bankruptcy — and pushed said viewers into the arms of time-slot rival and better show "Without A Trace."
"Will & Grace" has outstayed its welcome in a similar way. What seemed fresh and fun five years ago is screechy and tired now; Jack and Karen have become caricatures, few fans even like Debra Messing's Grace, and the stunt-casting is painfully desperate. A sitcom can come back from a fallow period — "Frasier" rallied for a strong final season, in spite of several years of flat writing and a super-mawkish victory-lap ad campaign on NBC — but it usually doesn't. "Seinfeld" understood that. "That 70's Show" doesn't.
Still, it's at least understandable that shows like these, shows we once liked and respected, sometimes stay on the air too long. The creators rack up Emmys, the stars sign umpteen-year contracts, and often the show has no choice but to go on.
Forgotten but not lostBut what of the shows that nobody ever really respected — shows that stank, or that nobody really cared about? Do network executives just forget about them entirely, or park them on Saturday nights and hope viewers all go out for the evening instead of attempting to watch "The District"?
Actually, "The District" is a bad example, because someone at CBS finally noticed that Craig T. Nelson, whose eight-year tenure on the mercilessly non-funny "Coach" was about nine years too long, still had a show for some reason, and cancelled it.
But how else to explain the continuing existence of "JAG," if not that execs just forget it's even on? It's not an offensive show, but it's not a great show, either; it's filler, the kind of thing baby-sitters watch when their charges' parents don't get cable, and it's taking up valuable prime-time real estate, much like its partner in boring-naval-dramas crime, "NCIS." Mark Harmon is probably a very nice person, but Tuesdays at 8 p.m.? Shouldn't "The Amazing Race," a legitimately outstanding show, get that time slot instead of having to languish on Saturday night, the programming equivalent of getting grounded?
Don’t give in to the shows that suckProgramming execs would probably argue that these shows do good business for them, that a banal half-hour like "Two and a Half Men" gets good ratings — but it's hard to know whether it gets good ratings because audiences genuinely think it's a good show, or because the schedule hasn't offered them a better alternative.
A lot of sitcoms might keep staggering along, zombie-like, because the network has nothing with which to replace them. It doesn't make intuitive sense to keep "8 Simple Rules…" on the air, for example, because only John Ritter made that show interesting, both while he was on and in the ways the show incorporated his untimely death. Now that it is incorporated, the show is just another predictable family sitcom.
So perhaps we have ourselves to blame for The Shows That Won't Die — the cookie-cutter sitcoms and "Law & Order"-oids that litter the airwaves. People do watch and enjoy these shows, and in most cases, it's not that they're stupid or wrong to do so (although actual enjoyment of "Still Standing" is something of a puzzle). "The West Wing" used to be a great hour of TV, and people who have stuck with it hope that it will be great again. "JAG" is sort of boring, but David James Elliott is an attractive man (see also: still watching "ER" for Goran Visnjic), and if you want a fairly bland but neatly packaged drama, it fits the bill.
But if a show is obviously past its sell-by date, the network should really just cancel it. A few shows that got the axe last year — "Becker," "Boston Public," "Ed" — had had it coming for a while, and it was gratifying that someone realized it. "Angel" had a little gas left, but it got cancelled too, and it's probably a good thing that it went off the air before it had a chance to get really bad (a fate that befell its parent show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer").
And if the nets don't cancel these shows in a timely fashion, we all have to stop watching them. No more "According to Jim," folks. It's a bad show. Don't encourage it.
Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of She lives in Brooklyn.